Every Man For Himself Leaves All Of Us Helpless

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”                Bertrand Russell

In this dark and chilly season, I stole away for a few weeks to a little heaven on earth, Barbados. My days there were about reading on beaches, a rum punch at the ready, with frequent dips in an ocean so clear, I could see the bottom. Not blogging. So, while I gear up once more for “regular life,” I’m running this post first published in March 2017. It seems an appropriate choice, set to drop on the morning following the State of the Union (which I can summarize in two words: Not good). Many of the best things I cite here have already received the axe. Others remain on the chopping block. Some of the horrors had yet to rear their ugly heads, like the zillion dollar heavily-privatized infrastructure plan where you pay now, and pay later, and pay forever, largely with cuts to education, healthcare, Social Security and Medicare, as well as thumping local/state tax hikes and increased tolls. Faced, as we are, with all these challenges, it feels more vital than ever that we pull together.  So, here ’tis:

Like a warped record you can’t get to play true, America seems stuck on repeating the myth of the rugged individual.

He’s a self-made man.

She pulled herself up by her own bootstraps.

In a free society, it’s every man for himself.

Herbert Hoover was a big fan of rugged individualism. He invoked it frequently in the depths of the Great Depression. It was his way of telling millions of hungry, destitute Americans that as far as the government was concerned, they were on their own.

But what is this thing called America? Is it really just a random collection of 350 million individuals, rugged and not so, butting heads in a zero sum game to see who survives?

 The Pioneer Spirit

The much-lauded “pioneer spirit” of America paints a picture of the hardy individual, musket in hand, blazing a trail in the New World (his woman and babes tucked somewhere safe offstage). He’s a guy who likes to go his own way, live by his own rules. It stirs people up, this portrait of our fearless forebears, mavericks all.

Except it never happened that way.

When the first non-native settlers arrived, they took one look and understood the situation: It was gonna take a village to build a colony. The land had to be cleared and plowed for planting. Ditches had to be dug for irrigation. Roads had to be made. Barns raised. Houses built. The rugged individual did not do these things with his little shovel. As European Americans were to do for much of the next 150 years, the settlers accomplished these tasks as a community.

And those Westward Ho-ing pioneers didn’t travel across the plains as individuals in the family’s little covered wagon. They formed wagon trains, BIG wagon trains, because the unknown road was dangerous and people got sick, wagons broke down. Under the best of conditions, the array and amount of labor still demanded many hands. Someone had to hunt for fresh food and someone had to cook it. Someone must fetch the water and feed the animals, repair the wagons and tend to the children. Going it alone, for all the fabled glory of the intrepid individual, would have posed a slew of serious challenges. America might never have made it 10 miles west of Philadelphia.

Our Ancestors Had This Nailed Long Before the Wheel

When our nomadic ancestors began to settle down 10,000 -14,000 years ago, they did not pitch their tents as individuals. My tent here. Your tent in the next valley. They settled in communities. And before they turned to agriculture, they had hunted in groups. Why? Because for all they didn’t know about the wonders to come over the next dozen millennia, they understood this: It sucks to be alone. It’s dangerous and difficult and you don’t do too well.

To thrive and grow requires a society. As legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said: “Individual commitment to a group effort—that’s what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

So, what is this animal, society?

A quick google of the question turned up the following:

“Society describes a group of people who share similar values, laws and traditions living in organized communities for mutual benefits.” (Reference.com)

“Humans are stronger as an organised group than they are as individuals. Humans in societies survive longer, breed more successfully and dominate resources. Therefore society is a survival mechanism and we have evolved for it.”  (S. Spencer Baker)

“To love our neighbor as ourselves is such a truth for regulating human society, that by that alone one might determine all the cases in social morality.” (John Locke)

And my personal favorite:

“Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” (Albert Einstein)

Today, in our fast-paced digital world, with its glut of consumer goods and endless distractions, it’s easy to miss what our ancestors saw so clearly: We need each other.  If we don’t support higher education, we won’t have the doctors we need to care for us when we’re sick or injured. If we don’t fund science, we won’t have the research we need to discover cures for our diseases or environmental solutions to save our planet. If we don’t spend the tax dollars to replace our aging infrastructure, we risk repeats of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured 145.

Look Around You
  1. If you had a bowl of cereal this morning, federal safety regulations (OSHA) protect the workers in the factory who packaged your cereal, and federal food standards (FDA) ensure that toxic substances are not floating around in your cereal bowl.

Enjoy a tomato in your lunchtime salad? Farm workers picked those tomatoes, and trucks delivered them to your local supermarket over Interstates built by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (The $25 billion, 41,000-mile highway system was the largest public works project in America up to that time.)

  1. Borrowed a book from your local library recently? Public libraries are funded by local, state, and federal tax dollars. And to get there, you don’t have to take your chances weaving between cars in the street because local and state tax dollars, often matched by federal funds, have provided sidewalks for your safety.

3. Enjoy walking in the sunshine and having a cold glass of water afterward? The air we breathe and the water we drink are subject to federal regulations that monitor and establish limits for pollution on both. Though these standards are under attack right now and may be eliminated, they evolved as a response to the growing concern in the 1960s and 70s about the impact of human activity on our environment. The kind of concern that inspired Randy Newman’s 1972 song “Burn on Big River” about Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, so polluted it burst into flames.

Scott Shaw/Cleveland Plain Dealer

Some 30 million Americans in eight states depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water. But urban growth has overwhelmed marshes that once filtered runoff, and fertilizer from intensive farming has filled rivers with highly toxic algae blooms. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, begun under President Obama, provides federal dollars to help protect and restore the Lakes area. The highly successful project hopes not to get the budget axe before it finishes cleaning up the decades-old toxic sites and restoring the necessary ecological balance.

Thanks to EPA automobile tailpipe emissions standards, our children can play outdoors without having to wear face masks. Even LA’s smoggy reputation has improved.  According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “… researchers at the University of Southern California say … pollution in L.A. has declined significantly over the past 20 years … and as a result, residents here are healthier.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) adds: “The cleanup of California’s tailpipe emissions over the last few decades has not only reduced ozone pollution in the Los Angeles area, it has also altered the pollution chemistry in the atmosphere, making the eye-stinging ‘organic nitrate’ component of air pollution plummet.”

4. Deposited a check in the bank lately? If it was under $250,000, you don’t need to worry because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, created under Roosevelt in 1933, insures deposits up to that amount. Imagine what folks would have given for that in 1929.

5. Glad there wasn’t an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the U.S.? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute in America, was there on the ground in West Africa when the epidemic developed. They are still there, working to improve public health and prevent another epidemic.  

6. Ever been a victim of a tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Then you were probably mighty glad to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel arrive on the scene to handle clean-up. Even the most diehard opponents of federal  programs, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, change their tune when disaster strikes their own house. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Christie was only too happy to take the billion-plus dollars that federal agencies like FEMA and HUD poured into his state.

7. Are you 65 or over? Have parents or grandparents that age? Thanks to Social Security (1935) and Medicare (1965), the people who taught our children, built our roads and bridges, staffed our hospitals, and kept the world turning in one way or another during their working lives are not left to starve by the roadside. Why should people under 65 care about this? Because one day, with any luck, we will all get to be “old geezers.” Because a society does not throw people under the bus when it’s “finished” with them.

The bottom line is this: When your house catches fire, do you really want to try dousing the flames with buckets of water from your kitchen sink, or do you want to call the fire department?

What Price the Public Good? 

Donald Trump said Meals on Wheels was slashed from his budget because it “doesn’t work.” Meals on Wheels uses volunteers to deliver hot meals to housebound people, mostly the elderly. Research shows that the program greatly improves both diet and quality of life for its recipients. And it keeps many of those folks out of hospitals and nursing homes.

So, people get a hot meal, feel happier, and stay healthier. How is this not working? Because it doesn’t make a profit?

In his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe addressed this notion that what serves the public has no worth because it doesn’t make a buck:

I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed.

America is a BIG country. It is not possible for each of us to provide all we need. It never was. The myth of the self-made man and the rugged individual are, at root, excuses for not making that individual commitment to the group effort that Lombardi spoke of.

President Obama addressed this eloquently during his 2012 campaign:

“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there …

“….there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam … That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people … You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

Warren Buffett, clever lad, nailed it in one line: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

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Skip the Resolutions and Pass the Gravy

 “I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.” 
― Rita Mae Brown

“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.” 
― Hans Christian Andersen

“Do anything, but let it produce joy.” 
― Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass)

“You’re looking at the waves, but ignoring the sea.”  ― Rumi

 

It’s that time of year once again when people are asking, “What’s your plan for 2018? What New Year’s resolutions did you make?”

My inner Sassy Girl is tempted to reply: “I’m giving up pinochle.” Or, “I’m swearing off glyphosate as a salad dressing.” But as most of these folks are friends (let’s face it—who else really cares what’s going on with you?), I give them the straight truth with a solemn face: I didn’t make any resolutions. I don’t have a plan. 

Which is just a tiny bit disingenuous because that is my plan.

Like 320 million other ordinary Americans, I’m always trying to figure out how to do this thing called Life. Lacking a roster of servants to do my bidding, and having never purchased a winning lottery ticket, I’m left to struggle with the eternal question: How the hell do I fit everything into the narrow confines of a 24-hour day?  The stuff I’m passionate about—writing, family, political action. The daily drudgework like dishes and laundry. The unending avalanche of forms/bills/notices that if not filed/paid/answered may result in a stiff penalty. Or a short jail sentence.

And sometimes I just need to sleep.

Resolution Madness

The single uniting force in the human race appears to be our mania for resolutions. If we share nothing else, come January 1, we all want to: 1) get in shape; 2) be more productive, and 3) manage the stress caused by #s 1 and 2.

Googling the subject, I see that 50 is THE number to shoot for this year. Fifty New Year’s resolutions came up more than once on my search. Ay caramba! Well, I suppose it seems less daunting than, say, 100, but it’s still madness. I mean, you’re gonna need a lot more than a Fitbit to keep track of that load. By the time I hit #16 (Get a Side Hustle) on the first 50-List, my head was exploding.

But it’s not just the number of resolutions these lists propose, it’s the scope. A second 50-list suggested the reader:

(#3) stop procrastinating—LOL, if we could do that, we wouldn’t need resolutions;

(#17) have better sex (Is there a meter for this? A checklist?);

(#22) get out of debt—has someone volunteered to pick up my tab?

(#33) re-invent yourself. This last strikes me as redundant. If I took up resolutions #1-49, there’d be no need to re-invent myself. I would be unrecognizable. 

For some reason, “drink more water” was a featured item on every list. Turn on the tap already.

Not every catalog of resolutions was so Herculean. Number one on Alexia Dellner’s list “Start your day with a really good stretch” felt both attainable and non-invasive.

Scroll down to #14: “Stop doing one thing.”

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!

Andrea, dear soul, like a mom holding out dessert for last, dishes up major relief with #50: Cut yourself some slack.

Amen. That’s my kind of list. Stop doing. Lie down. Let sanity find you.

Sisyphus 0; Rock 100  

The thing, as it turns out, is that though we’re resolution junkies on the front end, we suck at keeping them. It’s a true Sisyphean situation. The rock doesn’t just roll back down that hill. It flattens us. According to usnews.com, 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February. All that remains is the $1,995 you still owe on that Peloton Indoor Exercise Bike.

Researchers at the University of Scranton don’t even give us that much staying power. They claim that the resolution success rate is in the single digits. Eight percent to be exact. People, I don’t have to tell you this is not a flattering portrait.

Or—and this is the explanation I favor—perhaps we were never meant to be like that Timex watch in the old ads. The one that takes a lickin’ (by an 18-wheeler!) and keeps on tickin’. We are human beings. We have needs: Food, water, sex, online solitaire.

According to the Huff Po, there are numerous reasons why we fail the resolutions test in such astounding numbers, but they basically boil down to the same thing: A serious lack of realism in the expectations department. Vowing “I’ll never eat sugar again when a) you love sweets, and b) you love sweets, is like swearing you’ll never take another breath until we have someone sane in the White House. However noble your intention, it’s a doomed mission from the start. 

Case in point—one familiar to all writers—the ambitious plan to work on your novel 10 hours a day and/or resolving to pen 5,000 new words before each sunset. If you live in a monastery, where all you have to do is pray and someone prepares your meals, you might make it, but if you have a family, a job, a house, I can tell you from experience: It’s not happening. As Forbes noted: The average person has so many competing priorities that extreme life makeovers sink faster than the Titanic.

Enough Already with the Straitjackets

This post actually started with me considering a “plan” proposed by another self-employed blogger: Do one thing each day. Just that. This resolution grabbed my attention because it sounded so sane. Blog on Monday. Write on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Do household stuff and errands on Wednesday. Rest on the weekend. I could feel my anxiety level plummeting in the clarity and simplicity of the idea. Like the sound of those miniature desk fountains people buy to soothe themselves in the midst of utter chaos.

But then I realized that’s just trading one kind of to-do list for another, and to paraphrase Jackie DeShannon’s 1965 hit (“What the World Needs Now”): Lord, we don’t need another to-do list. Which is what resolutions really boil down to.

I’m a putterer. The thing I treasure most—what truly floats my boat—is to look at a day on the calendar and see nothing penciled in. This is a day to do with as I please, and I can make it all about one big project or several smaller projects. I can go to the gym or grab my honey and head out for a day of adventure. I can paint the kitchen or write a short story. Nothing kills a day for me more than getting up and realizing I’m straitjacketed into must-do tasks from dawn until lights out.

My plan—the one that isn’t a plan—is to minimize those strait-jacket days.

Carpe Diem

Last summer, I started cataloguing my books—all my books—a massive project that evolved out of a deep desire to stop purchasing copies of books I already own (I’m aware this makes sense only to my fellow book junkies). Whenever I got the chance, I would enter a shelf of titles/authors on my laptop. For someone who lives in a smallish house, I have an astounding number of books. Anyway, the project proceeded slowly. I was always promising myself I’d “reward” myself with cataloging a shelf after I wrote the next chapter of the novel or the next short story. After I’d penned the next blog post or researched a few more lit-mags and agents. After I finished weeding the garden or …

Surprise! The moment I could get to my cataloging project almost never happened. Ditto for playing my guitar or trawling for creative recipes. I was like the kid who dutifully eats her dinner day after day but never gets dessert. Feeling I had to cross off everything on a to-do list the length of War and Peace made me resentful. I felt like one of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, slaving away in the dark underground, the surface world something I glimpsed the light of only rarely.

So, I switched things up. In the week between Christmas and New Year’s this year, I gave myself a rare treat: I left my days completely open. This doesn’t mean I did nothing. I actually accomplished quite a few things, but I chose each activity in the moment, and only worked at a task until I felt my energy for it fading. The sense of possibility in each day energized me. Not having a to-do list calmed me. Gone was the stress of cramming, cramming, cramming. As my resentment faded, my focus sharpened. I finished the cataloging project (yay!). I also wrote this post, penned several new chapters of my novel and revised others, cleaned out dresser drawers, read one book and started another, watched several movies, cleared the mess on my desk, caught up with all my correspondence. All without forcing or fretting or rush.

A Different Kind of List

As someone who has earned a living writing and editing for much of my adult life, I’m no stranger to deadlines, and I’ve never missed one. But I don’t use a list to whip me to the finish line. Instead, I look at the scope of a project, estimate the total number of half-day units it will take to complete, add 2-4 more units because you never know what surprises lurk, in the project itself or in life, and count backward from the due date. I like the flexibility of this system. It leaves me time to write fiction. It allows me to work all day one day and skip the next if circumstances demand it or I’m just chomping at the bit for some free rein.

But we’re all individuals, so if you feel naked without a list (or a resolution), resolve to try this one: The Got-Done List. Got-done lists are not about the non-stop push to cross off task after task. They’re not about the relentless spur in the side that keeps you running until you drop, always short of some hoped-for finish line.

In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte talks about the weight many of us suffer from overloaded to-do lists, how it steals our happiness, slows our productivity, and damages our health. Schulte calls this state “The Overwhelm.” Got-done lists are about throwing off that weight and celebrating what we did achieve rather than ruing what we haven’t (yet) accomplished.

Research supports Schulte’s claims. Studies find that focusing on what we have achieved motivates us, makes us more creative, enhances problem-solving, and just plain adds to our happiness.

“I spend a few minutes at the end of the day writing down what I accomplished successfully,” says Nada Arnot, chief marketing officer of Qubed Education. “It’s rewarding and empowering to focus on what I did, rather than on what I didn’t do, which can be both stressful and demoralizing.”

I hear you, Nada!

So I’m sticking to my plan that isn’t a plan. Following my heart and letting the dust bunnies blow where they may. I’ve got living to do.

(Crank this one to the rafters and never forget what it is to hold the possibilities of your life in your hands.)